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This article is narrated above, with a few side notes and recollections that came to me while reading- you can either read it yourself, or click play and I’ll do it for you.
“Get the fuck up, you pussy!” I yelled through clenched teeth, hot blood running red rivulets out of my nose, down my chin, spattering across my lean, wiry frame.
I was breathing hard and fast, a teenage brawler high on adrenaline, liquor and hatred. My shaved head was sporting some fast rising knots from the alley altercation I was currently involved in, and I was pissed off enough to feel like I could breathe fire on this guy as I beckoned him to get up.
He was lying prone, covering up in the classic fetal position, after a withering combination of strikes and head butts from me had split his face open and left him punch drunk on the ground.
The “pussy” in question, we’ll call him Chuck, had me by about 70 pounds, and had done some boxing, and I guess he was about 5 years my senior. I was 18 at the time, and like all my friends, I lived to fight.
Currently, we were having our scrap in a breezeway/alley type thing next to my best friend Sam’s apartment in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where on the weekends (or any other day of the week we had enough money to buy booze), we’d gather our ragtag crew of skaters, punks and skins, metalheads and rockabillies, and as many girls as possible- to drink, fight and fuck ourselves stupid all weekend.
They called us the “17th Street Psychos.” Not a very inventive name, but if you partied with us around that time, you’d understand why this simple, ignorant moniker was applied. Beatings and various types of “pain Olympics” were de rigeur, from two guys holding a lit cigarette between their forearms as long as possible, the loser getting slapped or punched in the face, to girls playing “Bolivian slapping contest” (it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to figure out what this game entailed) to impress the guys with their tolerance level.
Slicing someone open with a knife or broken bottle and drinking their blood was considered a good way to “show some class,” ditto for branding, usually done with a Zippo and boot knife, and all kinds of violence, degradation and over the top male aggression was the gold standard of the day.
On the night in question, Chuck had run afoul of a friend of mine named Johnny, a platinum blonde punk from next door who had a reputation as a ladies man and tough motherfucker in one. Like Casanova meets Cassius Clay, he went from the romance to the rowdy-dow in short order.
I had no idea how it happened, and honestly, it could have been anything from a sideways glance to a mouth running off from too much Mickey’s Ice or Carlo Rossi. The upshot of it was, people had gathered around what looked like another beating about to be delivered from Johnny to some poor bastard, and I walked over to watch.
I knew Chuck a little, never really cared for him one way or another, but at parties like these, everyone showed up from all scenes to score or see how they measured up, so I was as curious as the next guy as to how the melee would play out.
I could see he was already acting like a punk, holding his hands up, looking for a way out, showing his weakness all over his face, when he should have just been swinging his way through the much smaller Johnny, who had a cold glare on his face as he shit-talked and intimidated this big quivering fish.
The guy was blubbering and looking for any kind of loophole he could find.
Johnny was telling him, “listen, you fuck, there’s no way you’re walking out of this place tonight without getting the shit kicked out of you. That’s just how it is,” and the guy’s eyes cleared as he seized on his chance.
“Okay, well I will fight someone, just not you,” he stammered, casting his eyes around him for someone that he felt more confident his abilities could manage. I had no idea how anything he could do after this would save the face he’d already lost with all his cringing and whinging, until his eyes settled on me.
“How about him? I’ll fight Paul,” he said, gaining some evenness and strength in his tone.
Johnny looked over at me and raised an eyebrow. “That’s a bad move, amigo,” he told Chuck. “This dude is gonna fuck you up worse than I would- he’s mean as shit.”
I met his questioning gaze with a shrug.
“I’ll fight him.”
At this point I was disgusted and little pissed off at the guy- how does someone shift the buck from someone who wants to fight them to a guy they’ve never had a problem with? I guessed that my short, 135 pound frame was a more attractive opponent than Johnny’s taller, heavier one, and I was younger, and probably seemed like less of threat in general.
I started to take my rings off. “Why head-hunt the guy?” I thought to myself, and as I did so, there was a surge in the crowd as a sucker punch made white hot light explode behind my eyes and my right leg went weird and weak. This prick, I thought, as my hands shot up to defend my head. Not even the common courtesy to square off in an arranged match.
He rained shots at me, and I kept my head down and tried to keep it moving as I shook off the blow I’d been dealt. Everything then went into a red blur, as the action took over. Punch after punch glanced off of my short cropped scalp, my head moving and weaving and my hands up to protect myself as I moved in, short, fast crow hops to close the distance and make angles, and then I started a barrage of my own.
A jab popped satisfyingly past his sloppy guard, clean on his chin, and a cross followed, then a lead hook, and I closed the distance with a head-butt to the nose, and big Chuck collapsed in a heap like a rag doll, covering his head, sputtering through the blood, “I’m done, I’m done.”
My ego had taken over. I wanted to make a display in front of the assembled crowd.
“Get the fuck up!” I beckoned him savagely to get back to his feet as I spat blood down on him, getting closer and closer to him like the dumb girl does to the masked guy you know isn’t dead in a bad slasher film.
He got up. Quick for a guy his size, and straight into a wrestler’s shot, a double leg takedown that I was not experienced or smart enough to expect. My legs went out from underneath me, I saw sky, and then came crashing down to the broken bottle covered concrete with all Chuck’s weight slamming into my ribs. I felt broken glass dig into my exposed back, smelled stale beer and piss as the rough concrete ripped my skin off like sandpaper.
Oof. A stupid sound, when you get the wind knocked out of you.
Panic as I tried to get my breath and couldn’t. You know it’s just temporary, but survival takes over and tells you you’re dying, every time.
Chuck takes advantage. Grabs my head by each side of it, and starts smacking it off the concrete. Each time he drills my skull into the unyielding surface, stars go off like supernovas in my head, and I am vaguely aware that I’m starting to get hurt badly.
I strike back, throwing a short elbow from the bottom hard into Chuck’s face, and he staggers back off me into a half crouch, holding his new wound.
I try to regain my feet, wobbly like a fucking baby deer, I think dimly, keenly aware of how stupid I look to the crowd, but my head and perception is wrapped in a gauzy cotton, like how your tongue feels after novacaine.
I stagger as I stand, my back toward Chuck, scrabbling to get off the ground.
He throws all his weight and strength into a Hail Mary haymaker, and Mary hears his bareknuckle prayer- it connects with the corner of my eye at the orbital bone, and my brain turns off.
I’m out on my feet, and I come back like a fluorescent bulb buzzes on after moments in between darkness and light. I can feel hot blood pouring down my face. I can’t see out of my left eye, and it feels like it might be gone. I seriously believe for a moment that his knuckle caught me hard enough to punch my eye out, because that’s what it feels like.
Instinctively, I put a hand to it, and feel the eye is intact, but there is a long split where my eyelid is hanging open, wide open, and just dumping blood out like a rusty faucet.
I numbly watch as Johnny steps in and two pieces the guy, then soccer kicks his face as he goes down, then stagger through the crowd, feeling like I’ve slammed a 12 pack of beer, but I haven’t.
That night, after crashing out, I sleep for a day and a half, which they tell me is a bad idea with a concussion. My head is covered in bruises and knots and splits. My eye takes weeks to heal, and is closed up for days. Probably could have used stitches. My pride is much worse, and takes even longer to recover.
Never stop before victory is decisive.
I promised myself after that night I would never again make the mistake of stopping a fight until I was positive the other guy was either unconscious or headed to the hospital, utterly unable to offer any further resistance, and I kept my promise in the dozens of fights I had after, through my twenties.
Then, a few years ago, at my first Jiu Jitsu tournament, I lost a match on points to a guy I had given up 15 pounds to, due to a shoddily run event.
He came up to me after, as I was pacing around dealing with the ego blow of a hard loss, and said, “man, you should’ve held that guillotine like one second longer. I was gonna tap.”
I felt the same sting of “shoulda coulda woulda.”
This is true in every area of life, not just fighting and competition, it’s just sometimes the most obvious there.
Keep swinging, keep the pressure up, keep moving forward, especially if it seems like all is lost, because at the end of the day, take it from me- it’s not about who is best. It’s about who is left.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out the article “Go Fight!” in Operation Werewolf’s “The Complete Zines Vol. 1” available HERE
Also worth a read are Sam Sheridan’s “A Fighter’s Heart,” and “Fight: Everything You Wanted to Know About Kicking Ass But Were Too Scared to Ask” by Eugene Robinson of the band Oxbow, which is a sort of personal manifesto meets collection of interviews with everything from hockey enforcers to convicts sharing their experiences with violence.